Autonomous drone development: an interview with F-drones

Autonomous drone development: an interview with F-drones
F-drones is developing a new drone technology that will be capable of delivering 100kg loads across a 100km range

Singapore start-up F-drones announced earlier this year its success in raising seed capital to further develop large scale autonomous drones for maritime logistics. VPO’s sister platform Digital Ship spoke with Mr. Yeshwanth Reddy, CTO and co-founder of F-drones to find out how the investment will help the company develop a new ground-breaking drone capable of transporting 100kg over 100km.

F-drones is the first company in the world to provide 24/7 commercial Beyond-Vision-Line-Of-Sight (BVLOS) drone deliveries to ships. It is currently in the middle of expanding its drone delivery services and has devised an 18-month roadmap to develop and commercialise its technology. The first step in the roadmap is to conduct test flights on the Hyperlaunch, a drone that can lift 5kg over 50 kilometres – significantly more than any other drone’s capabilities today. F-drones hopes to commercialise this technology in the next several months.

Once completed, F-drones will pursue development of its next-generation drone, the Hyperlaunch Heavy (HLH). This will be a fully electric and autonomous proprietary drone capable of delivering 100kg payloads over 100km. Following the completion of documentation and certification work, the HLH is expected to launch in around 18 months’ time and will mark a significant milestone in drone capabilities.

Design and technology

Both the Hyperlaunch and the HLH are based on F-drones’ proprietary design concept. The drones will each have two wings and eight motors to facilitate vertical take-off. The aircraft will be capable of performing a complete 90-degree rotation to cruise like an aeroplane. “Such an innovation in the design has enabled us to develop these aircrafts to lift heavier payloads over longer distances than any other option out there,” Mr Reddy told Digital Ship.

“Our drones do not have any single point of failure, meaning we have redundancies in every component. In the unlikely event of two rotors failing for example, the system can still safely complete its delivery mission.”

The current drone technology can withstand winds up to 50 kilometres per hour, giving an 80-90 per cent uptime in locations with very high winds and stormy weather. F-drones is currently planning all future drones to be fully operational in all weather conditions.

The current technology also features a traffic light system that changes from red to green, alerting crew onboard the vessel when it is safe to approach. This enables crew to simply pick up or drop off their items without having to operate the drone in any way, as this is all done by experienced operators onshore.  The drones also feature multiple onboard cameras to identify the surrounding environment and potential risks. According to Mr Reddy, F-drones is looking at developing a computer vision technology that is capable of identifying the safest spot for a drone to land on.

It is also possible for multiple drones to be operated by a single operator. This reduces the time needed to deliver several packages to a single vessel. “The aim with the Hyperlaunch and Hyperlaunch Heavy is to cut down delivery times by up to 80 per cent,” Mr Reddy confirmed.

The drones feature rechargeable and switchable batteries, enabling quick and timely battery changes. Going forward with the HLH, Mr Reddy admitted they will have to “be a bit more creative on how to swap these batteries as they are pretty heavy.”

F-drones is currently working to minimise the size of the components with the goal of producing compact drones that are able to fit into small spaces, while retaining the heavy payload needed to transport large items such as vessel spare parts.

Funding and development

The seed capital round, which was led by ship manager Eastern Pacific Shipping (EPS), will enable F-drones to spend the next 18 months preparing HLH for operation, and following that to continuously advance the technology.

F-drones’ relationship with EPS extends back to November 2019 when the start-up was selected to join the Eastern Pacific Accelerator Powered by Techstars, a programme that helps start-ups to develop their technology and bring it to the maritime industry. “The most important thing for us was to do some of the flight tests and to understand the operational requirements. We didn’t have the technology before we joined the programme, we just had an idea and the passion, but EPS trusted us and they let us leverage their resources to do some of the initial trials. We couldn’t have imagined how we would have done our initial trials without the active involvement of EPS. The accelerator has acted as a catalyst to our development from both a solution building angle and from an industry network point of view.”

Following involvement in the EPS programme, F-drones became the first company to secure a permit and complete commercial drone deliveries to vessels. From then on, the company started to gain significant traction. “We’ve been really excited with the closing of this half because now we have the resources to go ahead and commercialise, expand and advance the technology.”

Expanding footprint

As part of the roadmap, Mr Reddy envisions rolling out the drone technology to at least four additional ports beyond Singapore. “We have identified a few ports that we hope to be operational in including Panama, Gibraltar, UAE and Sri Lanka. We’re quite advanced in terms of our discussions with the local authorities and shipping companies and so we’re really hoping to be operational in these ports later this year.”

Wider global expansion of the drone technology will in some part be determined by regulation, which Mr Reddy sees as a bit of a bottleneck. “Often we see the technology available and ready, but the regulation and societal aspects are still trying to catch up.” For F-drones, a major advantage is that the technology operates over water, making it inherently safer than similar technology operating over land. According to Mr Reddy, this has led to promising conversations with various regulatory authorities. Moreover, as the first company in Singapore to deliver drone technology for maritime operations, F-drones has worked in close collaboration with authorities to make the technology safe and effective.

Partnerships

F-drones is now looking for some “game-changing partnerships both on the commercial side as well as the technology side.” This includes shipping companies with a strong regional presence to enable the start-up to rapidly commercialise the technology. The ultimate goal is to establish a strong range of partnerships that will facilitate a global network of drone deliveries to improve shipping and port efficiency.

On the technology side, F-drones is on the lookout for “partners who can help us be ahead of the curve. We are already working in partnership on the computer vision side, autopilot development, propulsion systems, airframe manufacturing, and much more. We are focused on building the best drone delivery solution for maritime logistics and as is the case with most big tech start-ups or companies, we need such partnerships to be able to bring out the best in each other.”

Mr Reddy noted that the funding awarded to F-drones has provided an assurance to its current and potential partners to go ahead and take this on for the long run. “It’s given us a lot of confidence that people will be able to trust in us.”

Mr Reddy confirmed that since establishing F-drones, feedback has been positive and there has been an overwhelming amount of excitement for the opportunities the technology will bring. “Since day one we could see the support, and this has only increased as we have progressed. More and more people are showing confidence in what we are doing. One of the testimonials to everything is that the major investors who have invested in our last round are all from the shipping industry, so they know the industry in and out and we feel this is a testimonial to what we are trying to solve.”

Moving forward post-pandemic

Despite the global pandemic, the start-up has seen “strong traction, not just in Singapore, but around the world where people are actually looking forward to us introducing this technology,” Mr Reddy told us. One of the bottlenecks has been the restricted travel across borders. “We’ve been slightly hampered by the fact that we are unable to kind of showcase or expand our physical presence.”

F-drones is determined to advance its drone technology to meet some of the major shipping and operational problems in Singapore, and worldwide.  “We are quite confident that by the end of the year we will have out together a fantastic solution, just in time to expand globally when the pandemic subsides.”

This article was originally published in Digital Ship’s Jun/Jul magazine. Click here to download the issue.